Villainy behind heroics
M Rajivlochan

Mutinies are testosterone-driven messy events. Often installed in the public mind as so-called great events through the myth-making enterprise of historians, most of whom are men too; they involve violence, death, destruction and much more in the name of some noble quest for justice. Almost as if there is a consensus that pain begets nobility.

For every noble act during a mutiny there are many that are entirely ignoble. It is just that we tend to forget the ignoble while remembering the mutiny and glorifying it as a noble deed. And when a mutiny does succeed, as it happens once in a while, history tells us that it does not change much: the name of the rulers and oppressors change, the rest of society and its culture with all its disabilities and iniquities continues much the same as before but for the large amount of misery that the mutiny caused to all and sundry. For, mutinies seldom try to bring in institutional changes; merely the change of personnel who govern a society. The common people suffer during the mutiny and then suffer after it, irrespective of who wins in the power struggle.

The mutiny of 1857 was no different. Even when you call it the first war of independence it remains the story of many heinous deeds that are best forgotten. What the English did to Indians is remembered in great detail through our collective memories. What the Indians did to the English is documented, sometimes with adequate ghastly garnishing, in the histories of the Indian mutiny written by the Englishmen soon after the event. What is not documented, however, is what the Indians did to Indians and what the English did to the English during those troubled times. Little wonder that Subedar Sitaram Pandey, then in the employ of the Bengal Army of the East India Company and part of a detachment trying to bring the mutineering sepoys to book, found that the villagers of central India, in the mutiny-struck region of Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, wanted to have no contact whatsoever either with the rebel sepoys or with the English army that was trying to locate them. As far as the villagers were concerned, both were leeches trying to suck the blood out of the countryside. Sitaram’s experiences in the English army are well documented in his memoirs “From Sepoy to Seubedar”.

Similarly, Sheikh Mohammad Ali Hasan of qasba Mubarakpur near Azamgarh in eastern UP, noticed the loot-mar committed by the sepoys who had mutinied. In his history of those times entitled “Waqeat o Hadesat” Sheikh Mohammad Ali remembers with some pride the effort that the people of Mubarakpur had to put in to ensure that the rebel sepoys did not enter the town and disturb peace. Like the villagers of Sagar, people of Mubarakpur too thought these outsiders, both the sepoys and the English, a disaster visiting them and tried their level best to avoid the two.

Harriet Tytler, whose husband was in-charge of the treasure chest of the Delhi Field Force, the force of Gurkhas and Sikhs, assembled by the British to re-take Delhi in the summer of 1857, noticed how the English showed considerable meanness towards each other and ineptitude in handling their Indian sepoys.

If there was something in common between the English officers and the Gurkhas and the Sikhs who joined them to crush the rebels it was the love of the bottle: a thing which the upper caste soldiers from Awadh who had rebelled, avoided.

The writer is a historian of contemporary India and teaches in the Department of History, Panjab University